Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How We Learn Lessons

My sister blogger Alison, recently recounted a story from our childhood – in which a teacher did not understand why I could not bring a Christian jigsaw puzzle home to my Jewish household. This incident changed my friend’s life – made her aware of differences that in no way limit friendships.

I learned nothing from it, and forgot it. If I learned anything, it was that standing your ground sometimes works.

But at 16, I relived this incident from the other side. I’m not proud of how I behaved, or what I thought. I think this kind of mistake is one of our truest teachers.

I was an aide at a Head Start Program. There was a little boy in my classroom who never wanted to do anything the other kids did. He didn't want to sit in circle for story time. He didn't want to get in lines for line dancing. If the program was serving Cheerios for breakfast, the other children ate them. He threw them. He was a nice kid, but he was a nuisance.

I tried all the standard -- if you don't like Cheerios, you don't have to eat them. If you don't want to listen to a story, think about something else. My 16-year-old advice didn't have any effect on this 4 or 5 year old boy.

Then one day the program sent home permission slips for the kids to get Sabin polio sugar cubes. The children were supposed to take them home, get a parent or guardian to sign them and bring them back.

A week later, I was told that all the kids had turned in their forms and I was supposed to lead them to the office to pick up their sugar cubes. The recalcitrant boy said he wasn't supposed to have one. This was unusual language for him. Usually, it was, I don't want to. I don’t have to. You can’t make me... NOT I'm not supposed to.

I told him it's not a shot. It won't poke him. He insisted he wasn't supposed to. I told him he had to talk to the teacher. He didn't want to do that. I dragged the kid to the teacher. She said she had his permission form. She got out the file. It wasn't there.

I called his mom to be sure he hadn't just lost the form. This boy was capable of deciding not to take the form home, just because all the other kids were doing it. His mother said, “No. I don’'t want him to have it.” He was right. He wasn't supposed to.

I had not believed him. I made him go to the teacher which he did not want to do. I embarrassed him. I did to him, what that teacher did to me.

I learned much more as the perpetrator than as the embarrassed kid.

In retrospect, I think the form should have had YES and NO boxes and the parent should have been given the opportunity to check one box and then sign the form. That way we’d have had a form on file and not had to call the boy’s home. Or, I could have called the boy’s home without dragging him to the teacher. I had to check. I had to do what the boy’s mother wanted. I didn’t need to drag him to the teacher in front of the class. This time, the boy learned that standing your ground sometimes works. And I learned the more powerful lesson.

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